Religion and Illness

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Annette Weissenrieder, Gregor Etzelmuller
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Wipf & Stock Publishers
    , November
     446 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In recent decades, research on the intersection of religion and medicine has evolved from the margins of religious studies into a robust field of interest. Religion and Illness represents a major contribution to this development. In their introduction, editors Annette Weissenrieder and Gregor Etzelmuller provide an overview of the volume’s eighteen articles, which are organized into four sections: Islamic, Asiatic, Jewish/Near Eastern, and Greco-Roman Antiquity/Christian. The title of each section includes the phrase “Care of the Sick,” which alerts the reader to a running theme: the religious response to affliction must be appreciated within the context of community. The book reminds us that the relationship between religion and healing, between theology and medicine, has a long history.

Contributors represent multiple disciplines and interests: medicine, psychology, comparative religion, history, literary studies, Islamic studies, biblical studies, rabbinic studies, and theology. Based on a 2006 symposium on medicine and religion held at the University of Heidelberg, this work was first published in German as Religion and Krankreit. The present volume includes most of the original contributions plus several new works considered relevant for English audiences. For the editors, the book reiterates the purpose of the initial symposium: “(1) to discuss the fundamental relationship between medical and religious interpretations of disease in different cultures and (2) to gain criteria for a life-enhancing coupling of religion and the interpretation of illness” (11). From this reviewer’s perspective, it has accomplished the task.

Though most of the contributions focus on illness and healing within one tradition, the collection of articles invites comparative study. The volume appears skewed towards Abrahamic traditions and biblical sources, but the reader is reminded of the diverse approaches within those traditions. The inclusion of studies on Islam in Mali, Chinese Daoism, Tibetan Vajrayana, and American alternative “holistic” models provides ample material for comparative analysis and inter-religious exchanges. This diversity also complicates the claims of biomedicine, bioethics, and legal directives that rule Western practice, leaving gaps in meaning and understanding as often as offering satisfactory answers. Many people also rely on religious views, yet the medical gestalt privileges biological and material explanations; it therefore “creates a vacuum of interpretation” (1). The editors make clear that, when studied historically and viewed cross-culturally, constructive “physician-patient dialogue” and parity between religion and medicine become more tenable.

Thus, a major theme in the volume emerges: the need to contradict the reductive, materialist, and ethnocentric models of Western biomedicine. In “Medical Concepts and Therapeutic Networks among Tamasheq Nomads in Mali,” Anna Munch criticizes the secular under-appreciation of holistic Islamic treatments, including the work of traditional Mali marabout healers. Genuine remediation also involves “inward spiritual cleansing” (71). Similarly, Paul Unschuld in “A Focus on the Law or on the Individual?” notes that Chinese medicine, both classical and contemporary, raises questions about the totality of material reductionism, recognizing the influence of numinous forces on the body. Martina Dannecker’s article “Emotional Affliction and Mental Illness” conveysthe non-reductive approach of Tibetan Buddhist medicine, which effectively navigates a globalized blending of rational and mystical healing. For similar reasons, Anne Koch and Karin Meissner in “Holistic Medicine in Later Modernity” describe contemporary healing as a “highly ambivalent practice” and an eclectic mix with cross-cultural elements. They also insist on the spiritual dimension of the healing process; understanding holistic medicine involves acknowledging the influence of unseen powers and agents (414).

For Weissenrieder and Etzelmuller, theology plays a crucial role in evaluating the limits and successes of modern medicine. In the introduction, they contend that “dialogue between theology and medicine needs to raise questions about which religious interpretations are helpful in therapy. This question forces medicine to relinquish the interpretative parsimony that it seeks …” (1-2). Therefore, sickness and health variously implicate the notions of karma, ancestral retribution, numinous powers, cosmic imbalance, and the will of God. Interpreters, medical specialists, and the subjects must be cognizant of the metaphysical claims of religious traditions and the experiences of religious lives, which offer models that confront the Cartesian bifurcation of mind and body as well as the autonomy of the individual. In their article “Illness and Healing in Christian Traditions”—to my mind the pivotal article in the volume—Weissenrieder and Etzelmuller write on the communal context of medicine: “As a religion of healing, Christianity does not directly aim to create better health, but rather a community that accepts the sick and suffering ... [it] also helps people be sick in a healthy way … every person contributes in a specific way toward the formation of the healing community” (266). This assessment about a “healing community” could be applied to other traditions explored in the volume.

Religion and Illness will attract specialists in comparative medical cosmologies as well as those interested in the intersection between theology and culture. At university, it will be useful for graduate school seminars, with selected pieces also being suitable in undergraduate classes on religion and health. Medical practitioners and chaplains may also find the volume an invaluable resource as they seek to appreciate the relationship between religion and culture and how they apply their knowledge to matters of illness and health. A concluding postscript from an external religion scholar or theologian might have further helped the reader identify and distill the primary themes and critical issues addressed in this rich collection. Ultimately, Religion and Illness represents a notable and engaging project and should prove a lasting contribution to the field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel I. Britt is Gordon Poteat Chair in Asian Studies and REligion at Furman University.

Date of Review: 
February 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Annette Weissenrieder is Professor of New Testament at San Francisco Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union. She is author of Images of Illness in the Gospel of Luke: Insights of Ancient Medical Texts (2003).

Gregor Etzelmuller is Professor of Systematic Theology at Osnabruck University (Germany). He is author of Was geschieht beim Gottesdienst? (2014).


Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments